It’s been nearly a year to the day since I wrote my very first post about the Pirkei Avot, and I refer anyone new to the series to that post. It’s a good start, and I promise you, it’s the only one I think you should read to get introduced to the whole thing (although my last one is also well worth the word court).
So here I am again. I was in services this morning for our teacher’s appreciation Shabbat and since I was there a few minutes early, I decided I’d read ahead. Obviously you can see it’s now past midnight, so I’ve had plenty of time to let this story steep. And the truth is, I’ve needed every minute of it. And probably then some, too.
So without any further ado… Press the button below to follow me on this next (and I assure you, rather exciting) step on my journey through the so-called Ethics of the Fathers.
2.1 Rabbi [Yehudah Ha-Nassi] taught:
Which is the path of virtue a person should follow? Whichever brings honor to his Maker and brings him honor from his fellow human beings.
Be as attentive to a minor mitzvah as to a major one, for you do not know the reward for each of the mitzvot.
Weigh the loss incurred in performing a mitzvah against the gain; conversely, weigh the gain of an aveirah [sin] against the loss.
Ponder three things and you will avoid committing an aveirah. Keep in mind what is above you:
An Eye that sees,
An Ear that hears,
A Book in which all your deeds are recorded.
My problem is not the content: It’s the breadth of the content.
As I learned from my days reading Tarot, however, it doesn’t matter how many times the same card is laid down, every time you read it, something else in the tapestry of the art printed upon it will speak to you, and it’s from those few details that the entire depth of meaning emanates. The same shall occur here, and has in the past, as I seem to recall. The hard part then becomes figuring out which parts speak the loudest.
This morning I was very intrigued by the ending: The Eye, the Ear, and the Book. They seem poetically ominous and spatially significant, for always they are above you. But the words fell flat. Until, that is, I met a panda named Jack. Rather, the panda was named Po, but it was voiced by Jack, Jack Black, that is.
Yes, I am talking about Kung Fu Panda. And yes, tonight really was the first time I saw it. I initially had no intent to, as I’ve never been a very big fan of Jack Black (the only other movie of his that I’ve really liked was The Holiday, but even so, I was indifferent to his role). From the start, though, I’ve heard good reviews, and when my sister rented it from the library, I figured, school’s out, might as well. And I’m glad I did.
So fair warning: There will be spoilers. I’d put another “More” tag in, but it won’t let me.
Again, there will be spoilers.
Final warning now. I’m being serious. Don’t believe me? Fine. Read on.
Near the beginning of the movie, after that intro full of awesomeness, our dear panda Po goes up to the Jade Palace. And it’s way up. I mean it’s way up. The curious thing is that there seems immediately to be a parallel here: Thinking of Master Oogway, he seems to have a clairvoyant aura about him that insists upon a general lack of accidents, which he says thrice, notes Shifu. He seems to see, and he seems to hear, and he seems to know it’s all written somewhere what will be, and that cannot parallel the Eye, the Ear, and the Book more obviously, can it?
Perhaps, perhaps not. My point comes later.
About fifty minutes or so later, when Po finally receives the Dragon Scroll and unravels it to find…nothing. It’s blank. What was Master Oogway thinking when he wrote that thing? Seriously, I mean, he didn’t even write anything!
Another fifteen, twenty minutes along we learn his father’s secret noodle ingredient: There isn’t one.
A pause for reflection: Be as attentive to a minor mitzvah as to a major one, for you do not know the reward of each of the mitzvot.
In the end, this simple idea of the secret being no secret at all–that ultimate power already lies within each of us, if only we believe it is so, seems to come straight from this passage! If the greatest mitzvot do not always produce the greatest rewards, and the smallest mitzvot do no always produce the smallest rewards, then even the smallest can effect the greatest. It doesn’t matter what action we take, the potential is limitless.
The same applies to our aveirot as well. A small sin can kill an entire world. Just think of all those children a few months back who committed suicide over things we might put off as seemingly small incidents–but lives were ended, lives were lost. Entire worlds, entire universes, cut from ours forever. Things like that are unthinkable.
Just imagine the wealth and the prosperity if those small sins had instead been small mitzvot. If instead of posting a video on YouTube, they confided in support. If instead of teasing, they smiled and laughed together. If instead of hatred, they attempted love. The world would be a different place altogether–and all at the mercy of small graces.
In Kung Fu Panda, the most unlikely hero saves hundreds, while those we would most want to believe to be the best in the end still have years of learning left to do before they learn this lesson. It doesn’t matter the size of what we do, but that we do it. That itself makes the greatest difference of all.
Unfortunately, human nature is innately self-centered and preservative. This itself is not a bad thing, but if we cannot grow past our primal instincts, it can quickly become crippling, to ourselves, to our societies, to our entire species.
To combat this, we turn to the next lesson, a test of sorts to promote action: Weigh the loss incurred in performing a mitzvah against the gain; conversely, weigh the gain of an aveirah against the loss.
If a small act can make a big difference, we are compelled to commit it; but on the other hand, if an ill-favored act will get us a small prize at the cost of much more, than it is our duty to deny it.
Earlier this week I had an extra copy of a video game that I was trying to exchange for something different. Turns out, this was a copy not for resale, which I hadn’t realized. I was faced with two options. I could say it didn’t work and have it exchanged, or I could settle for getting less money than possible. The first seemed worthwhile. But from the start, it unsettled me. Who would it harm to say it didn’t work? Not the store. But the company would have to throw out a perfectly valid game just so I could get a refund. That trash would pile up somewhere, cause some amount of wildlife to be turned into a dump, cause a little bit of the world I love to succumb to staleness. On the other hand, if I took it to the used book store, although I wouldn’t get as much in return for it, all this trash would be saved and someone else would have the chance to play this really awesome game.
So that’s what I did. I settled for a loss, because it presented the greatest reward. Maybe I could’ve gotten more elsewise, but this way my integrity was not sacrificed, and I made a difference, small perhaps, even miniscule, but these things add up. Who’s to say I didn’t save the world then and there?
It all comes back to realizing, as we often forget, that the smallest things can make the biggest differences. It’s not just big makes bigger. It’s action makes reaction and one reaction begets another. The fight for civil rights is a path of steps we each must take, but even one less step could mean we’ll never reach the end. I feel like I ask a lot for phone calls and emails and visits if possible to our representatives and senators and general politicians in support of equality, but in the end, it’s these small acts that can mean the difference between a prosperous life and suicide.
The next time you see someone in need, even if they’re just asking for your support, weigh that gain against the loss incurred and maybe act to make a bigger difference in an already suffering world.